JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Florida finally got enough big plays on defensive and special teams to bail out its stumbling offense.
The Gators got sacks, strips, a blocked punt and a kick return for a touchdown to beat Ohio State 24-17 in the Gator Bowl before 61,312 people Monday at EverBank Field. In doing so, they won their fourth straight bowl game, a school record, and escaped the embarrassment of their first losing season in 32 years. They now have been above .500 every year since going 6-6 in 1987, the longest active streak in the country.
"Twenty-four straight winning seasons at Florida - that's exciting," coach Will Muschamp said. "We've got a lot of good kids in that locker room. We've got guys that have had a very frustrating year."
Florida's win was its second over Ohio State in the past five years. The Gators surprised the No. 1 Buckeyes 41-14 in the 2007 BCS Championship game. This game was not nearly as meaningful, but Florida stuck Ohio State (6-7) with its first losing record in 23 years and first seven-loss season since 1897.
Five players combined for a season-high six sacks, plus another six tackles for loss. Jon Bostic, a linebacker from Palm Beach Central High, led the team with five tackles for loss. Chris Rainey blocked a punt that turned into a touchdown and Andre Debose raced untouched on a 99-yard kickoff return.
Those are the big plays Florida did not get enough of in close losses to Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia this year.
The Gators (7-6) scored on a 17-yard touchdown pass from seniors John Brantley to Deonte Thompson with 56 seconds left in the first quarter. Thompson, from Glades Central High, caught two passes for 27 yards in his final college game.
Ohio State tied it early in the second quarter, but Florida answered immediately with Debose' return on the ensuing kickoff go ahead 14-7 and led the rest of the afternoon. The 99-yard return was the longest play in the 67-year history of the Gator Bowl. No Ohio State player was close enough to even attempt a tackle.
"It meant a lot to me," said Debose, who has three kick return scores in his two-year career. "I just try to do anything that I can do to help the team. There's no feeling like it."
Rainey's punt block in the third quarter was the other game-changer for the Gators. With Ohio State's Ben Buchanan standing on his 32-yard line, Rainey ran in from the right and lunged at the ball for his sixth career blocked punt, an SEC record. Graham Stewart picked up the deflection at the 14 and scored to give Florida a 21-10 lead.
Rainey, the team's leader in rushing and receiving yards this season, also ran 16 times for 71 yards and caught three passes for 31.
"Wow, I didn't know I did all that," he said. "The thing I'm most proud of is we won and I'm done with school. No more school for the rest of my life."
No other Gator accounted for more than 40 yards rushing or receiving. Brantley completed 12 of 16 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown, but lost two fumbles and threw an interception.
Those problems were forgotten in the joyous post-game celebration, where players hugged and posed for pictures. But the party did not overshadow the massive amount of work ahead of Muschamp. Florida lost just 10 games from 2005 through '09, and now has 11 losses in the past two seasons.
"Big picture is in the last two years at the University of Florida, we're 15-11," Muschamp said. "That's unacceptable. It's not where we're going to be very long, I can assure you of that. We're moving in the right direction."
He later added that fans need to be patient and put on their "realistic glasses" as he tries to push the Gators back to prominence.
"You know you've made some strides, but again, this is just one day, so let's don't get ahead of ourselves. It takes a time to build it to where you want to get it. Patience is not a good word around here, but sometimes you've got to exercise that."